Celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, under the radar Brighton-based Catskills Records is an imprint well worth discovering. We chat with founders, brothers Amr and Kahalid Mallassi, and meet Pepe DeluxÉ and Husky Rescue, the double whammy of Finnish bands that still sets the label apart…
Tell us a little about your backgrounds?
Khalid: Me and my brother were born in Khartoum, Sudan and left in the early 70s because we heard they had really delicious apples in England. We lived in London for a while, then ended up in sunny Crawley for some reason.
Amr: You could only do two things in Crawley, walk and fight. If you could do both at the same time you were considered a god. Both of us moved to London to study, and eventually we moved down to Brighton.
What was the soundtrack in the family home when you were kids?
K: Our mum seemed to be into ABBA, The Jacksons and Neil Sedaka. We loved playing her records when we were in the house on our own and, even then, we could work out that Leo Sayer was not as cool as Bill Withers. Mum also played a lot of Sudanese and Arabic music.
A: A string of Sudanese musicians would come to visit and play into the early hours. One regular visitor was our Uncle Kabli who is something like the Sudanese Elvis. He plays traditional songs on an acoustic instrument called an oud. It sounds like very old original blues music with Sudanese rhythms. When he heard our first demos he said one word, “Shit”.
So that would have been Sonorous Star?
K: Me and Amr had been making music for a few years. We tried rapping at first but… that was a bad idea.
A: Our ill-fated rap group was called The Womp Rats– there’s a shout out to them on the spine of the vinyl of the 20th anniversary compilation. We decided it would be best to go instrumental. We were heavily influenced by John Carpenter and wanted a name that he’d use for a film title, so Sonorous Star was born. Then came Catskills because we thought, “This making music stuff is easy, what we really need to do is start a label so we can fill in a million forms, chase artists around, listen to the same tracks over and over and generally work a desk job!”. The original plan was just to make sure we weren’t left with 1,000 unsold vinyl copies of our first release. To our surprise it sold out.
How is working with your brother?
K: We get on well, which surprises a lot of people. Even when we fall out, especially when it’s about music, we can always sort it out. We have similar taste and know what we like and don’t like instantly. Plus, being as I’m so much better looking than Amr, it keeps him humble.
A: We both A&R the label and make all creative decisions together, which has helped to form the feel and sometimes silly humour of the label. After that I take care of all the legal, financial, web stuff and publishing while Khalid handles events, marketing and promotions.
Do you think you get the recognition you deserve?
A: Maybe we haven’t had the props we, or more importantly, our artists deserve since along the way we’ve seen how much more a little bit of money and playing the game can achieve. Pepe Deluxé’s first album sold pretty well, but we hit a ceiling. Then when Pepe were signed up to do a Levi’s ad we licensed the record to Sony and all of a sudden doors opened up. We started to get daytime radio plays and TV appearances and people carriers waiting to take you from place to place. It all comes at a compromise. Thanks for the money Sony, but it was a window into a world we never want to go back to.
You lost stock during the London riots in 2011 in the arson attack on the SonyDADC warehouse in Enfield didn’t you?
A: We lost everything, our glorious back catalogue was gone forever. Luckily we had all the masters and digital meant we could still get our music out there. There was at least one release we were happy to watch burn since we had a LOT of copies left, not mentioning any names…
K: In a way our 20th anniversary compilation “Catskills Records: 20 Years Of Victory” is the perfect way to get some of these releases back out again.
Appreciate it’s like having a favourite finger, but which releases particularly standout and why?
A: You bastards! You’re making us chose!
K: Pepe Deluxé’s debut album ‘Super Sound’ still sounds amazing 17 years later, just the way they put together tracks, mashing samples together on top of each other to create something special. They helped us to take a step up to making albums rather than just singles. We learnt a lot from Pepe Deluxé, so many adventures opened up to us after that and all because of that album.
What does the future hold for Catskills?
K: We’re cooking up a new album from Pepe Deluxé. Nothing beats hearing new Pepe music, they always just do their thing and the world catches up a few years later. There’s also a new album from Husky Rescue next year too, with a new line-up just to mix it up again. Really looking forward to hearing that.
Anything else you like to get off your chest?
A: Why don’t we have urinals at home?
K: The apples were delicious in England by the way.
Meet Pepe Deluxé, your guide, one half of the duo, James Spectrum…
We first discovered Catskills via Pepe Deluxé. The name caught our eye before you caught our ears. Who or what is Pepe Deluxé?
Pepe Deluxé is me and Paul Malmström. I’m Mr Pepe, providing the madcap elements, and Paul is Mr Deluxé, lounging and occasionally composing music in his Manhattan penthouse. Our first tune, ‘Call Me Goldfinger’, was written for a scratch DJ compilation ‘Return Of The DJ Vol. II’. Hip hop DJs at that time were called DJ Super-this and Grandmaster-that, we wanted to come up with a name that would really annoy the more serious hip hop people. I’m happy to report that the name has indeed worked as planned.
What is the Catskills/Helsinki connection?
I’m from Helsinki and I met Amr and Khalid, here at the after-party of the third Sauna World Championship. Amr’s a big fan of saunas and had been very well prepared. As he’s originally from Sudan, he loves the heat. Unfortunately he broke the absolute golden rule of never saying more than a word or two in a Finnish sauna and was he was disqualified. Anyways, Amr offered to sign my band if I taught him the most effective Finnish pick-up lines. So I taught him “Sä oot tosi magee” (“You’re really cool”) and “Haluuksä pitää mun pipoo?” (roughly “Would you like to wear my woolen hat?”), and that is what got us our record deal.
Your first album, ‘Super Sound’, had a few clearance problems. Interesting times, eh?
“Interesting times” as in the old Chinese curse? We had to more or less remake the album, twice, and it’s still not 100 per cent, erm… next question, please.
Who was the biggest name to put the brakes on?
I recall some problems with Diana Ross, but it was always the managers or record companies. Things got really crazy: clearing a sample could take over a year and the record companies always took 100 per cent of publishing, no matter how small the sample. When we did the Levis ad, one label wanted £200k for the Nina Simone vocal sample… which we already had rights for, but only for the album use.
You also did ads for Lee, do you ever have to buy jeans again?
We never got a single pair of jeans! We ended up hiring a Lapland shaman named Pena to put a curse on Levis. Can’t say if it worked or not – but their market share has dropped from over 30 per cent to about five. We Finns have very low tolerance for unfairness.
Your very own Paul Malmström commissioned the Lee ad campaign didn’t he?
Paul was working for a Minnesota-based ad agency called Fallon. He wanted someone to make some groovy party music for three Lee ads and he’d fallen in love with Pepe because of the crazy liner notes/song descriptions in the ‘Super Sound’ booklet. We kept in touch after the campaign, and encouraged him to make more music. The first thing we did together was ‘Salami Fever’, and that’s been sampled by the Prodigy. Twice.
Your most recent album, 2012’s ‘Queen Of The Wave’, features some spectacularly unusual instruments. The Great Stalacpipe Organ sounds bonkers…
It’s something straight out of a Jules Verne book. It’s the largest musical instrument in the world, located deep underground in Luray, Virginia. It was invented and built by Pentagon-scientist Leland W Sprinkle and allows you to play tuned stalactites in a huge cave by using a custom-built organ console.
It’s five years and counting since we’ve had a Pepe album… what gives?
We’ve been working on the album for four years. Basically, we’ve been recording the sounds of some of the rarest and most extraordinary instruments on earth, and composing music with and for these instruments. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but the album is finally shaping up quite nicely.
What advice would you give yourself if you could pop back 20 years for a quick chat?
You are riding the last ever wave of the record making industry. Much of this will be gone sooner than anyone expects. Never again will you have a free day in LA, a personal chauffeur taking your drummer to the largest toy store in town to buy a huge Star Wars toy that he will, after a gig later that night, be presenting to two lovely girls with these magical words: “Ladies, would you like to see my rocket?”. And for Pete’s sake: write down the hit formula of ‘Before You Leave’. We lost it and haven’t been able to come up with a hit ever since.
Meet Husky Rescue, you’re in safe hands with Marko Nyberg and Antony Bentley
Catskills seems to have a healthy Helsinki obsession. How come?
Marko: The Jukka Bros must’ve made an impression on them. It was a rather unforgettable MTV series about four brothers, all of them called Jukka, living in the Finnish forest.
James from Pepe Deluxé is an old pal isn’t he?
M: He remixed a track for a band I was involved with back in 1996. I went to his studio, it’s the same place he still has today, but back then he also slept there. In the mornings he tucked in the sofa bed and got to work. The remix was… how should I say… peculiar. All the wrong harmonies in the wrong places, or the right places, it was wonderful. We’ve been pals ever since.
The making of your first album, 2004’s ‘Country Falls’ was a sociable affair wasn’t it? The list of musicians is huge!
M: I’d just put together a proper studio after years making music in my bedroom. I could actually put up a drum set and ask friend over and record anything. I was also running around flea markets making great finds, odd microphones and other musically valid junk. The studio quickly became an instrument of its own.
Ambient pop seems like a nice description of what you do. How would you describe it?
M: Once when we were on the road, we stopped at a gas station and a stranger asked the same question. I said, “It’s the kind of music my mother has always enjoyed.” The stranger got the idea immediately.
There was a reported UFO sighting near where you live, which inspired 2010’s ‘Ship Of Light’ album. What’s your take on UFOs?
M: I believe.
‘Ship Of Light’ is your least electronic work, some if it was recorded in a forest. Not enough electricity out there?
M: True. We were definitely wrapping ourselves in aluminium foil to protect ourselves from all the extraterrestrial electricity.
Tell us about Lake Bodom.
M: Lake Bodom is just outside Helsinki. It’s a mythical, intriguing environment, not least because of this horrifying triple-murder that took place there in 1960. Three teenagers were brutally killed and the case was never solved. My friend Janne was living by that lake in a rather bare bones cabin so we went to her place with all sorts of acoustic gear and made very intimate alternative versions of some of the songs on the album. We had Reeta-Leena lying on an iron bed recording the vocals and cosy things like that.
And then singer Reeta-Leena headed off to study musical theatre. How’s she getting on?
M: She’s doing great! She’s currently playing Stephanie Mangano in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ at a theatre in southern Finland. Musical theatre suits her perfectly.
All of which meant recruiting a new band…
M: Replacing your singer is hard, but because of how the first album was recorded the ability to collaborate with different people is kind of built into Husky Rescue. I met Johanna [Kalén] who had been living in a trailer in a forest near Stockholm. Now that was intriguing. We recorded one song with her and it just felt right. With Antony, we had known each other for a long time, originally from the motion picture industry. We’d talked about making music together for a while so this seemed to be the perfect moment to go for it.
2013’s ‘The Long Lost Friend’ is again a very different sounding record.
M: We worked as a very intimate unit. We travelled to studios in New York and Berlin and had some key sessions in each of them.
A: I don’t like to draw any line between, say, grabbing a guitar or writing source code to make sounds. I like to think that Marko is good at painting and I’m good at throwing paint bombs.
‘Tree House’ is a blinder, a huge pop song that seems to swirl effortlessly over nearly eight minutes. Discuss…
A: “Effortless” is a good word, with ‘Tree House’ it almost feels as if the song was telling us where it wanted to wander rather than us calling the shots. And boy did it wander places.
M: I’m building a tree house at home right now. It’s a lot more effortless writing an eight-minute pop song than building a tree house. I have a feeling it will take me several more summers to complete.
It’s high time we had a new record isn’t it? What have you got up your sleeve?
A: We just released a new song called ‘My Shelter’ as part of Catskills’ 20th anniversary album. We recorded it together with an super-inspiring singer, Ringa Manner. Other than that we’re hunting for the right time and place to record further new material.
Your name conjures up a very comforting image. Have you ever been rescued by husky?
M: No, but recently there’s been 25cm of snow and my car broke down in the centre of town. I told my daughters that if we had eight huskies and a sledge we’d get to where we’re going in no time.